Jailing Winton’s ghost

Sunday National, 11th July 2021.

You might know Lau’s song “Ghosts”:

“We say we’re not like them
A generation ago
We came on the same ships we were hidden below.”

The lyric came to mind this week, as our pitiless Home Secretary lodged her new Nationality and Borders Bill in the House of Commons. The Bill introduces a range of measures to make it harder to claim asylum, and harder to challenge Home Office decisions to chuck you out of the country. Perhaps the worst element of the proposals is what some have already dubbed the “Nicholas Winton clause.” Winton was the Kindertransport humanitarian who helped rescue and resettle almost 700 children in the UK before the outbreak of World War II. Priti wants to jail Winton’s ghost.

As the law stands, it is a crime to help an asylum seeker to enter the UK “for gain.” First introduced in 2002, the law aimed at curbing the traffic of refugees into the UK for motives of private profit. At the moment, this offence does not apply to people acting on behalf of pro bono organisations which “aim to assist asylum seekers.” But Patel wants this to change. If passed, her proposals will scrub out any reference to being “for gain” from the law. Claiming asylum is not a crime – but if the Home Secretary gets her way, you will be a criminal if you “knowingly” help a bona fide asylum seeker to reach the United Kingdom.

Just think the cold, hard logic of that through. Say you had a family member who lives abroad, or an old partner say, or colleague, or a university friend. Imagine they get in touch with you. Imagine they’re a democratic dissident in an undemocratic country, going in fear of a knock at the door in the night and being disappeared.  Imagine they tell you they’ve been outed as gay in a homophobic country and are now exposed to persecution and reprisals. Imagine your friend is the wrong religion – or the wrong flavour of religion – and they find themselves at risk of persecution if they don’t get out and stay out.

If you put your hand in your pocket and paid for a train or plane ticket to pull them out of the jeopardy they find themselves in, Global Britain thinks you belong in court. Even if your brother, or lover, or former colleague or friend is truly in danger and entitled to recognition as a refugee under UK and international law – the Tories think you should be treated as a criminal for helping them to reach these shores. If this measure is passed, you’ll be nothing more than a people trafficker, gain or no gain.

Even for a politician like the Home Secretary whose personal brand is one of studied cruelty and cheerful indifference to the plight of desperate people, this is a desperate measure, pandering to the worst inclinations of the British public and a media culture which has worked hard for decades to transform the concept of being an asylum seeker or refugee into terms of abuse.

Patel is just the latest in a series of Home Secretaries serving this wider political agenda. Throughout New Labour’s period in office, Tony Blair’s Home Secretaries prioritised the creation of a hostile environment – bureaucratically and culturally – towards what Jack Straw described as “would-be migrants are taking advantage of the “obligation on states to consider any application for asylum made on their territory, however ill-founded.”

The trouble and grief real people experience in the real world as a consequence of their vilification seems to be of no moment to the tabloid publishers or politicians leaping on a line. They’re just human collateral. The current regime’s attacks of lawyers helping these people are also functionally indistinguishable from the antipathy every UK government has shown in the last three decades towards solicitors doing their best to get asylum claims properly adjudicated in this country. The Home Office is a toxic bureaucracy.

Only Patel’s happy cruelty really sets her apart from most of her predecessors. But there is something particularly ugly about the obvious relish this Home Secretary brings to her job. I found myself wondering this week: how does this happen to a person? How do you become a ruthless, smirking enforcer of measures which – as Patel has herself recognised – would almost certainly have left her own parents standing at the port, awaiting expulsion from the UK?

If you can bear to make a character study of it, it is a grimly interesting story in how empathy can be flensed from a person brimming with political ambition and identifying with the selfish and singular vision of their place in the world.   

From the family cuttings in the public domain, Priti Patel’s parents arrived in the UK from Uganda during the 1960s. Tracing their family tied back to Gujarat, her parents seem to have seen the way the wind was blowing for Indians in Uganda before Idi Amin seized power. By the time the “Last King of Scotland” expelled the Indian population in August 1972, the Patels had established themselves in Hertfordshire, gradually building up a chain of newsagents shops.

The England Sushil and Anjana Patel arrived to was experiencing a spike in political anxiety about rates of immigration, particularly by people of colour from Britain’s former imperial possessions. This was the time of the Race Relations Acts, but also of Enoch Powell’s notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, denouncing Commonwealth immigration as a “nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”

Patel was born in London in March 1972. You don’t need much social imagination to begin to see some of the tensions which must have attended Patel’s upbringing, as part of a family who narrowly escaped the prospect of persecution, setting up up shop in a United Kingdom increasingly preoccupied by the Great Replacement theories of their day.

As the refugees from Uganda followed Patel’s parents into the UK, Margaret Thatcher took to the airwaves to argue that “we must hold out the clear prospect of an end to immigration except for compassionate cases” on the basis that “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.” Patel’s political pin up was elected Prime Minister just over a year later.

When Patel says “my parents were shopkeepers,” you know she feels the political resonances clearly, recalling Thatcher’s upbringing in her father’s Grantham grocery store, and the habits of thrift, industry which were the centrepieces of the Iron Lady’s moral and social vision. “I am obsessed with money and counting money,” the future Home Secretary said in the same interview. Patel is a truly child of the 80s, including the rampant individualism that implied.

But perhaps the ultimate key to understanding the Home Secretary’s attitude was hinted at in an interview she gave shortly after she was first elected in 2010. Patel told a local paper that “my dad did not want us to be just part of the Indian community in a large city. For him it was about getting on and to be part of the community and to be British. I am British first and foremost.”

Looked at one way, you could read this as a powerful statement of the intention to integrate. But contemplated from a different angle, it can also be read as a neat way of intellectually and emotionally disassociating yourself from people wearing the shoes your family once wore.

It is just another way of not recognising your father’s face peering up anxiously from the boat. It is a way of not seeing your mother’s eyes in the detention centre, and not recognising the child in yourself bundled up in its parents’ arms, or washed up on the shore. Apparently a void of human empathy, this is a Home Secretary to be pitied, as well as despised.

2 thoughts on “Jailing Winton’s ghost

  1. Andrew – you have the lady summed up beautifully. And those last two paragraphs pack a punch. She’s one of a kind, though it’s salutary to be reminded of some of her gruesome predecessors and wonder what is the thing that happens to politicians who achieve that particular high office. It wasn’t just Michael Howard who had “something of the night about him”…


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